The latest novel from Michael David Lukas, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo (Spiegel & Grau) is a spellbinding novel that takes place in Cairo, Egypt and focuses on the Ezra Scroll— a legendary, perfect copy of the Torah written by the Prophet Ezra himself.
Written across three different time periods, from three different perspectives, the result is an intricate history of Jewish people in Cairo and throughout Egypt.
We got to talk with Michael David Lukas, who also wrote the bestseller The Oracle of Stamboul (Harper Perennial) about living in Cairo, discovering a little known history and the experience of writing three different time period from three different perspectives.
BookTrib: Reading this, I felt like I was right there in Old Cairo, you really bring forth the vitality of the city. What’s your connection to Cairo?
Michael David Lukas: I lived in Cairo about 20 years ago, when I was studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo and I really just fell in love with the city. It’s this crazy, decrepit, sublime, friendly, completely difficult city. The only thing that felt a little off to me was that I didn’t really feel like I understood how I fit in as an American Jew. But one afternoon I was wandering around this neighborhood of Old Cairo and happened upon this synagogue, the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Seeing the synagogue and imagining the lives of the people who prayed there for over a thousand years, hearing the tour guides talk about this once thriving community – it made sense and I felt my connection to this city that I had really fallen in love with suddenly resonate on another level.
After that, I kind of became obsessed with this history of the Jewish people in Cairo, not only because it’s interesting but also because it provided some perspective. It was a sort of long view of Jewish history. I grew up studying the Jewish history of the 20th Century and for good reason, of course: my grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and that past is the one American’s are most familiar with and taught. But it was interesting to see that it’s not just one trajectory, that there are lots of ups and downs, periods of harmony and conflict. I think that really re-aligned the way I thought about history, and Jewish history in general. Being obsessed with Old Cairo, I tried to write this novel about the Jewish people in Cairo a few different times, and I kept putting it away. But I had this chance encounter with a woman on an airplane who told me about her distant relatives in Calcutta, who were watchmen of the synagogue there and that conversation really just kind of sparked the novel that I ended up writing.
BookTrib: People largely think of Egypt as monolithic in terms of culture, religion and faith, when, in fact, it is very diverse. In this novel, you bring these different cultures and religions together so beautifully. Tell our readers a bit about this vast history of diversity in Egypt.
MDL: There’s a pretty large Christian minority now, but 100, 200 years ago and farther back, it was this very multicultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society. It would be as if 500 years from now, white Christians expelled everyone else from the United States; and it would be so sad if we lost this vibrant history of the country that we live, that is a multicultural, multiethnic society. So that was an impetus of writing this book, to revive this past and look to a future in which co-existence is more possible than it might seem today.
BookTrib: I feel like this is really expressed through the character of Joseph, who is both Muslim and Jewish. You convey the balance he achieves between the two religions and how it plays out on a largerbscale in his community. Was that by design?
MDL: I knew that I wanted to write about the Jewish community in Cairo, and it would be a story of encountering the “other,” and I sort of knew that Ali, this young Muslim watchman, would be encountering the “other” in his city. As soon as I started thinking about the contemporary character, Joseph just kept coming back to me as the most natural extension of that idea. I tried to write a few other characters in the contemporary plot line, but I really wanted to embody all of that tangled, messy history in Joseph. Because Judaism has matrilineal descent, and Islam has patrilineal descent, I became sort of obsessed with this idea that you could technically be both Jewish and Muslim at the same time. The other idea I played with would be to have his mom be Muslim, and his father Jewish, which would make him neither. But it seemed like he had enough going on identity-wise, without throwing in that wrench.
BookTrib: You approach this book from three different perspectives and three different time periods. There’s Ali, who becomes the watchman of the synagogue around 480; the twins Agnes and Margaret Smith in the late 1800s; and in the present, there’s Joseph. Talk us through the process of bringing all these different perspectives, experiences and time periods together in one book?
MDL: When I started out writing it, I started out imagining the book as ten different parts, one for each century of Jewish life or history in Cairo. I started writing that, but then realized that it was something of a fool’s errand: I didn’t want to write it, let alone read it, but as the drafts moved on, I sort of whittled it down until it became these three plot lines that sort of represent certain points in the community and in particular this synagogue in Cairo, and the documents that are in the attic of the synagogue. Once I decided on that, the question became how to braid them together.
I went through all sorts of alterations to make it work and I wanted them to each be independent. I wrote them separately, so as not to confuse the voices, but I also wanted there to be resonances between them, points of connection. There are a number of things that bring them together – the synagogue, the documents, the mythic Ezra scroll in the attic of the synagogue, the family of Watchmen – but I also wanted to show the way the city had changed. The city that Ali was in is quite different from the city that Agnes and Margaret are in. There were a couple of scenes outside the synagogue, such as the cemetery, where I wanted to show that though the city may have changed remarkably, these monuments were still existing after thousands of years.
BookTrib: Agnes and Margaret Smith in reality were twins from Cambridge University, Semitic scholars who were famous for their discoveries and translations. How did you go about researching them, and then writing their unique voice as twins?
MDL: They had a hard mindset to get inside, in part because they’re driven by faith and certainty in a way that I am not and in part because they’re twins and I just have no idea what it’s like to have a twin! They were also incredibly close and I was really interested in having this joint point of view, which diverges a little bit, so that was something I thought about a lot when I was writing it.
We’re lucky enough to have a few books and journals that they had written. It wasn’t particularly hard to write their voice, because you already have it in writing. But understanding them and that mindset that would allow you to run rampant all over the Middle East, just taking documents at your pleasure.. that was hard, as was trying to present them in a way that was sympathetic. Ultimately, they’re of their time period. We can obviously criticize them, but I didn’t want to come down too hard on them. That was difficult, it was something that I went back and forth with me editor about. She wanted to tone it down a little but, but for me, this is what British Victorian Imperialism is all about. Agnes and Margaret may be these protofeminists, but they’re also Imperialists through and through.
So, I wanted to make them sympathetic, but also undercut their viewpoint. They could have their viewpoint of Egypt and Egyptians, but that opinion was going to be constantly undercut. And they never really learn anything from it – they’re these interesting, complex, hardheaded people.
BookTrib: Let’s talk about the Ezra Scroll for a minute. This historic, perfect copy of the Hebrew Scriptures was written by Ezra himself. How did you first come across the Ezra Scroll and how did it become central to the plot?
MDL: I really wanted to include an element of magic, or the possibility of magic in the book. I think that there is something really magical about all these documents, and I wanted to externalize that. I also think that there’s something really magical about the fact that all these characters believe so strongly in something and there is absolutely magic in that, that certainty of faith.
While I was thinking about that idea, I came upon the Ezra Scroll. It had always just been an aside, a rumor or a footnote or something, but I think that I first really came upon it when I was reading a book by this German Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem, who was one of Walter Benjamin’s friends. He wrote this book on Jewish mysticism and that’s where I first really started thinking about it.
I loved this idea of a perfect book – that every book is imperfect except for this one copy of the Torah that was written by Ezra himself. But at the same time, there’s this view of Ezra, himself, in the story of the Prophet Ezra, that he’s this sort of ardent ethnic nationalist, if you can call it that. He basically rails against intermarriage and in the process of collating all the different, inaccurate examples of the Torah, he’s also arguing against intermarriage and expelling all the Jews who have married non-Jewish people. He’s this force of mono-ethnic, mono-religious strain of politics, where as The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is very against that.
BookTrib: Which brings me to a question that I love to ask: was there anything that you left out for any reason? Maybe you thought that it wouldn’t quite work in the book or that it diverted the narrative?
MDL: Other than eight centuries of Jewish history, there’s a little bit more on Ali that I wanted to be a much bigger part, but it just ended up being too much. Joseph’s academic career was a really big focus, and the plot sort of turned on his dissertation, which – anytime you say that the plot turns on a dissertation being finished, you know you need to revise that! But my wife was finishing her dissertation at the time, and I think I just needed to work that out, so to speak, in fiction.
I still have a little bit of Van Morrison in there, but originally Van Morrison was this huge part of the book. He meant a lot to Joseph and there was all this Van Morrison stuff that, when early readers read it, they were just like “What is this? This is so bizarre. Why is Van Morrison in here?”
BookTrib: Do you have a special connection to Van Morrison?
MDL: I just really love him. His work is so mysterious and so much of himself, even though he really draws on tradition. But he created this beautiful, unique sound. While I was writing this book, I liked to listen to just one album, just have it in the car and listen to it all the time, so I think it just went deep into my consciousness.
BookTrib: Last question, I know that you just released this book, but what can we expect to read from you next?
MDL: You know, there were definitely some lulls in the process of writing this book, so I have a few drafts of the next one, but it’ll probably be a few years. It is about Jewish history, and it’s set in the future – it’s a retelling of the Biblical book of Esther, but set in this post-apocalyptic future. Like this book and my previous book, it’s in the long arc of Jewish history, but it’s set in the future, which is also a part of that history, just one not yet discovered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael David Lukas is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Oracle of Stamboul, which was a finalist for the California Book Award, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize and has been published in fifteen languages. He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a student at the American University of Cairo, and a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv. A graduate of Brown University, he has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California.